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Homelessness: Who is to Blame and Why it Hasn’t Been Fixed

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    One of America’s long standing social and economic issues, homelessness primarily afflicts veterans, drug and alcohol addicts, the mentally ill, and ex-convicts. While homelessness isn’t a new issue, it began to rise to light in the 1980s. Wartime, and the subsequent decades, gives way to an era of prosperity in America. This was no different after World War II, and through the 1960s. In the 1970s, however, the economy shifted completely from a manufacturing based economy to one of service. Because many industries were cut down, people had to completely start over, often at minimum wage. This forced many to abandon their once lavish lifestyles for a life of grit and dissatisfaction. Further hindering the hardships for many was the termination of millions of low-income houses and apartments. This combination effectively allowed for people to not be able to afford housing. The 1980s was also the beginning of the deinstitutionalization of centers treating and housing those with mental illnesses. People who had been treated were supposed to begin to work with community mental health centers, but the centers never materialized in sufficient numbers to address the need. Those who needed care the most ended up without any and many have ended up in

    county jails, as there is no where else for them to go. The explosion of substance use, and abuse, ensnared millions of Americans. Rehabilitation centers couldn’t grow and sustain at the rate at which they were needed to, and many of these people, while waiting for treatment, ended up in jails for drug possession, distribution, and manufacturing. Again, while waiting for treatment, these individuals were digging themselves deeper into a pit, and each day in, making it harder to climb out. Many of those who did get into treatment facilities couldn’t cover the financial aspect of it, and they too were sent to fend for themselves. While minimum wage has increased, and technology and treatment methods have improved, the number of homeless people has only increased.

    The American government has made attempts to circumvent the housing crisis in America. One of the United States’s programs to keep low income people in homes is Federal Rental Assistance. The FRA consists of three programs: the Housing Choice Voucher Program, Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance, and the Public Housing Program.

    According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, as a whole, Federal Rental Assistance makes housing affordable for about 10 million people. People who qualify for support from these programs must be “low-income”. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services reports that low income for a single person household in 2018 is $1005 per month. For a family of four, low income is $2,050 per month. These programs also require some “extremely low” incomes, meaning that their income must be less than 30% of the federal poverty line. While these programs cannot cover every person that applies for aid, they have been effective in helping millions maintain decent housing.

    Because of these programs, families are able to afford housing and avoid homelessness. By limiting housing costs, it also leaves families with more resources for other necessary expenses, like child care, transportation, food and medicine. For frail seniors and people with disabilities, federal rental assistance programs often provide services as well as affordable units, enabling them to remain in their home communities and avoid or delay moving into nursing homes or other institutions that are much more costly for state and federal governments. Also, when assistance enables families to live in low-poverty neighborhoods, children are significantly more likely to attend college, have lower rates of teenage pregnancy, and have higher incomes as adults.

    Over 17 million at-risk renter households eligible for rental assistance do not receive the money they need, due to funding limitations. Sixty-three percent of these households have children or are headed by a person who is elderly or has disabilities. According to the Marketplace, there are around 900,000 evictions every year (around 2.3 million people), many of which end up being unable to find housing and become homeless. Even though there are programs in place to help those in need, many are still left without the provisions they need.

    Because the government funds these housing programs, there is a sense of instability that accompanies relying on them. From December of 2018 to January of 2019, the United States government shut down for thirty five days. People, who rely on the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (or HUD) to cover their rent, were left without that support. Landlords, already pressed for money, demanded that these tenants make up the costs; knowing that many could not. While independent relief organizations stepped in for some, many were left without the means to pay and were subsequently evicted. These people, without a house, were left to attempt to keep their jobs and care for their families because of an uncontrollable situation. These individuals then had to start the process of finding somewhere to live all over again, with the added strain of lower credibility, due to their recent eviction. The government, shut down over a fiscal dispute, left people without any means to pay rent or even buy food for their families.

    According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 20 to 25% of the homeless population in the United States suffers from some form of severe mental illness, while only 6% of Americans are severely mentally ill (National Institute of Mental Health, 2009). Forty-five percent of the homeless—250,000 individuals—had any mental illness. Serious mental illnesses can prevent one’s ability to complete everyday tasks; things as simple as keeping up with personal hygiene and keeping up with one’s household. These afflictions can also hinder people from forming and maintaining positive relationships. This combination often makes it difficult for those with mental illness to find a caregiver, let alone a place to live. As a result of these factors and the stresses of living with a mental disorder, people with mental illnesses are much more likely to become homeless than the general population. Patients with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are particularly vulnerable. Poor mental health may also affect physical health, especially for people who are homeless.(Library Index, 2009) Mental illness can potentially cause people to neglect taking the necessary precautions against disease. When combined with inadequate personal care due to homelessness, this may lead to physical problems such as respiratory infections, skin diseases, or exposure to tuberculosis or HIV. In addition, half of the mentally ill homeless population in the United States also suffers from substance abuse and dependence (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration). Minorities, especially African Americans, are over-represented in this group. Some mentally ill people self-medicate using street drugs, which can lead not only to addictions, but also to disease transmission from injection drug use. This combination of mental illness, substance abuse, and poor physical health makes it very difficult for people to obtain employment and residential stability.

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